FC Barcelona accused of corruption over ref committee payments
Prosecutors have formally accused Barcelona of corruption because of its payments of millions of euros over several years to a company that belonged to the vice president of Spain’s football refereeing committee.
The decision, made official on Friday, was reported this week by Spanish newspaper El País. An investigating judge will decide whether the accusations should lead to charges.
Barcelona, which denies wrongdoing, has been under scrutiny since the club’s payments became public. The payments were initially investigated as part of a tax probe into the company.
Prosecutors in Barcelona have issued three accusations which include alleged corruption in sports and fraudulent management. The other accusation related to the alleged falsification of mercantile documentation.
Spanish soccer has been rocked since it was revealed that Spain’s tax officials were probing Barcelona’s payment of 1.4 million euros ($1.5 million) from 2016-18 to a company belonging to José María Enríquez Negreira, a former referee who was a part of the Spanish Football Federation refereeing committee from 1994 to 2018.
The prosecutors said in court documents seen by the Associated Press that the payments by the club actually reached 7.3 million euros ($7.7 million) from 2001-18. They added that this “quantity was not justified because it was not foreseen in the statutes of the club nor approved by its general assembly (of club members).”
That scenario would mean that Barcelona paid Enríquez Negreira’s company during different club presidents, including from 2003-10 under the first term of current president Joan Laporta, who again took charge in 2021. Laporta, however, is not being accused by the prosecutor and has denied any wrongdoing.
The accusations are against Barcelona the club, Enríquez Negreira, former Barcelona presidents Sandro Rosell and Josep Maria Bartomeu, and former Barcelona executives Óscar Grau and Albert Soler.
Prosecutors said there was sufficient evidence to believe that Rosell and Bartomeu, who ran Barcelona in consecutive terms from 2010-20, “reached a confidential, verbal agreement” with Enríquez Negreira, who, “in exchange for money, was to carry out acts tending to favor Barcelona football club in the decision-making process of referees in the games played by Barcelona, and in the results of the competitions.”
There is so far no evidence that referees or game results were actually influenced.
The refereeing committee to which Enríquez Negreira belonged assigned referees to games, chose which ones worked in which division, and picked the ones for international competitions.
Barcelona has consistently denied any wrongdoing or conflict of interest, saying it paid for technical reports on referees but never tried to influence their decisions in games.
Getting reports on referees is common practice and clubs can pay other companies or have them prepared internally, as Barcelona does now. But paying large amounts of money to a person involved in the running of Spain’s referees for reports is not a normal practice.
Bartomeu, who has denied any wrongdoing, told ABC newspaper last month: “It looks like with this service we were asking for more penalties in our favor or that we wanted to condition the referees’ decision, but it is not true. This person (Enríquez Negreira) had zero power over referees.”
Several former and current referees, including their current president, have all denied that they ever received any orders or pressure to favor Barcelona.
Enríquez Negreira told Cadena SER radio that he never favored Barcelona while assigning referees to matches, and his job was to only aid the club verbally about how players should conduct themselves before each referee.
The scandal threatens to stain Barcelona’s golden age when Lionel Messi and company dominated Spanish soccer. During the years that prosecutors say Barcelona paid Enríquez Negreira, Barcelona won nine Spanish leagues and six Copa del Reys.
Other than an initial statement by the club and its president when the payments were first reported by Cadena SER last month, Barcelona has remained silent on the scandal. The club has hired a law firm to carry out its own investigation of the payments, whose results it is expected to make public.